Now that the Biden Administration is reviving the Obama Administration’s proposal to concoct a Middle Eastern and North African racial identity on government forms, I’ve finally found an article that asks what strikes me as the central question: Are Jews MENAs?
In my experience over my lifetime, race is partly socially constructed by the Office of Management and Budget guidelines for other federal agencies on what race and ethnicity categories to list on their paperwork. For instance, people are always asking me why in one of my statistical analyses I didn’t divide up the population along whatever is their favorite axe to grind. My usual response is that I just follow the federal guidelines because that’s how the data comes chopped up.
And, in my experience, however, the single most influential group is one the feds haven’t broken out since Jewish groups shot down a proposal to ask Jews to self-identify in the 1950s. Jewish groups felt that wasn’t good for the Jews, so it didn’t become policy.
There are a few questions revolving around the MENA proposal that I haven’t seen anybody else ask: How many Jews would stop declaring themselves on the Census as white and pick MENA instead? And what are the political, social, and cultural implications of that?
I have no idea what the answers to those questions are, but almost nobody else seems interested in asking them, which is stupid.
Arab and Iranian activist groups are trying to get the Biden administration to impose a new MENA classification; it would have some surprising effects on American Jews.
DAVID BERNSTEIN | 7.27.2022 7:54 AM
I reviewed last year Professor Bernstein’s book on affirmative action: Classified.
[Cross-posted from my blog at The Times of Israel]
The Biden administration is considering adding a new ”Middle Eastern and North African” racial classification to the US Census. If this classification gets written into law, it will inevitably spread to college applications, civil rights forms, and other documents that ask Americans to indicate their race.
What would this mean for the American Jewish community? Will Israeli Americans be part of the MENA classification? Mizrahi Jews? Ashkenazi Jews who feel closer ties to their Middle Eastern heritage than to their more recent European places of origin?
… The [1980s] lobbying efforts were unsuccessful, in part because of an unresolved debate over whether Israeli Americans would be included in the MENA classification.
In the meantime, more Muslims from Arab countries began immigrating to the US. A new generation of Muslim Arab American progressive political activists self-identified as “people of color.” The media generally accepted this designation. For example, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and activist Linda Sarsour, both Muslims of Palestinian Arab descent, have been widely described, and describe themselves, as “women of color.”
In Sarsour’s case she attributes her “person of color status” despite her pale complexion to the fact that she wears a hijab, which causes others to see her an outsider to mainstream America. This raises the question of why Haredi Jews do not get “people of color” status based on their more dramatically non-mainstream religious garb. …
Census Bureau researchers reported that Israeli American and Jewish organizations told them that American Jews did not want to be included in the MENA category because they identify their ethnicity as Jewish, not Middle Eastern. The latter response, however, is beside the point, because there is no “Jewish” category on census and other forms; most Jews would have the choice between identifying themselves as white or as MENA. Many Mizrahi Jews (Jews of recent Middle Eastern and North African descent) would check the MENA box, as would many Israeli immigrants.
At least some Ashkenazim consider themselves to be descendants of a group indigenous to the Middle East. And if the MENA classification developed into an affirmative action category, Jews would have an incentive to identify themselves as MENA. …
Arab American groups and their Iranian American allies are trying again in the Biden administration. American Jews should oppose this change, for several reasons. First, the groups pushing this change are, to say the least, not friends of the American Jewish community. They want a MENA classification primarily so that Americans of Middle Eastern Muslim descent can get official victim status, including eligibility for affirmative action. They also hope for a certain immunity from criticism. Already, when people criticize the likes of Sarsour and Tlaib for antisemitic and anti-Israel statements, the latter’s defenders question how critics indulge in “white privilege” and dare attack “women of color.”
Relatedly, as noted above many American Jews will adopt the MENA classification, leading to communal tensions with other MENA Americans as Jews take a share of whatever gains the others believe are “supposed” to go to them. …